Antonin Dvořák Quintet for Piano and Strings No. 2 in A Major Op. 81

While Antonin Dvořák’s first quintet was composed in a period of considerable uncertainty for the young composer, the Piano Quintet No 2 in A major was written as he approached the zenith of his international fame. It was also composed in the congenial surroundings of Dvořák’s country retreat, Vysoka. The premiere was given on 8 January 1888 at a concert in the Rudolfinum in Prague with four of the finest Czech string players of the day and the promising conductor and composer Karel Kovarovic at the piano. Publication by an enthusiastic Simrock followed—chamber music was a far more lucrative prospect for the publisher than symphonies—and the quintet began to make its triumphant way in the world. The only jarring note in its progress was one of Dvořák’s periodic tussles with Simrock over the issuing of his music with titles in Czech as well as German. Dvořák eventually had his way, but only by dint of sending the erring publisher a specimen title-page in both languages.
The clarity of design and open-hearted expression which are the most winning features of the quintet—and indeed of most of the works by Dvořák from the 1880s—are but two of the virtues of which this work is by common consent a compendium. Dvořák’s success in matching the richness and volatility of his melodic gifts with an unerring grasp of classical form is remarkable: neither structure nor instrumentation seem to have posed any of the problems apparent in the earlier quintet.
The leisurely opening of the first movement, the cello over a rocking accompaniment by the piano, belies the vigorous activity that occupies much of the movement. The latter tendency becomes apparent with the entry of the upper strings. These contrasts of mood, which are such an appealing feature of this movement, are effected mainly by deft changes in harmonic rhythm. In the substantial development Dvořák makes use of all his themes, but gives pride of place to the opening melody which he subjects to characteristically subtle alterations. The richly textured recapitulation, in which the first violin now takes the main theme, is set off by a superbly expansive introduction.
The slow movement, entitled Dumka, alternating slow and faster sections and a favourite form of the composer, is the lyrical heart of the work. In fact, the contrast between the two main melodies is not particularly marked, with the sensuous melody of the ‘fast’ section (Un pochettino più mosso) ambling along at a barely faster tempo than the soulful opening theme (Andante con moto). Greater contrast is to be found in the central section, marked Vivace, which takes the opening melody of the movement and develops it in order to create a thrilling climax; very much the ‘wild dance’ which Dvořák himself later spoke of when describing his conception of the Dumka.
The brilliant Scherzo has characteristics of both a fast waltz and the Furiant—Dvořák’s favoured style for many of his scherzo movements in the 1880s—whose bold cross-rhythms dominate the opening melody. A more relaxed secondary idea led by the cello is based on a genial transformation of the opening melody of the quintet’s first movement. The trio comprises a gentle sequence of chords adorned by and interspersed with dreamy references to the main melody of the Scherzo. Deceptively simple, this central section reaches heights of eloquence as the two violins play its main theme against a gently rocking accompaniment from the piano.
In the superbly sustained finale, Dvořák maintains momentum by leaving his themes open-ended: each one leads on to the next with compelling inevitability. Nothing is wasted and even the jaunty little vamp that opens the movement is used to fine developmental effect. Perhaps with the example of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in mind, Dvořák embarks on a vigorous passage of fugal counterpoint which overlaps with the recapitulation. After the cheerful bustle of the main part of the movement, Dvořák calms the headlong pace of the music with a magical series of chords. After this momentary repose the pace gradually increases and the quintet concludes with brilliant pentatonic flourishes distinctly prophetic of Dvořák’s ‘American’ manner.
from notes by Jan Smaczny © 2010